Hennepin County expanding security at 3 suburban courts

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2012 - 11:04 PM

County Board votes to screen for weapons now at 3 suburban courts.

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After considering closing the Southdale court in Edina — where it would cost about $900,000 to rebuild the entryway to accommodate a walk-through detector — the Hennepin County Board decided to have visitors there screened with handheld devices for now.

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The Hennepin County Board on Tuesday imposed weapons screening at its suburban courts, responding to fears raised by a county judge and a recent shooting in a North Shore courthouse.

"We don't know that anybody will ever be injured in our courthouses, but we don't want it to happen," said Commissioner Jan Callison, who sponsored the resolution. "And we know that they are places that are high stress, with people under a lot of pressure. And people under pressure who have access to weapons do things they shouldn't do."

By the end of April, walk-through metal detectors will be installed at the Ridgedale court in Minnetonka and the Brookdale court in Brooklyn Center, similar to ones which visitors must pass through to get into courts and offices at the county's Government Center in downtown Minneapolis.

After considering closing the Southdale court in Edina -- where it would cost about $900,000 to rebuild the entryway to accommodate a walk-through detector -- the board decided to have visitors there screened with handheld devices for now.

A permanent solution for Southdale and the other two courts will have to await conclusions of a $150,000 study on court security that the board ordered Tuesday from the administration.

That report is due Nov. 1; in the meantime, a $77,000 security report commissioned from the National Center for State Courts will be finished this spring.

Hennepin County District Judge Lloyd Zimmerman drew attention to court security in January, when he publicly refused to hear any more cases in the suburbs for safety reasons. Zimmerman's refusal came three weeks after a prosecutor and witness were critically wounded in a shooting at the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais.

Sheriff Rich Stanek said that he was "satisfied on an interim basis" by the board's action and that visitors to all of the county's courtrooms, not just those downtown, should be checked for weapons.

He told the board that 3,400 weapons, ranging from pocketknives to handguns, were confiscated in 2011 at the downtown Government Center, while only 15 "significant incidents" were reported in the suburban courts -- suggesting that many weapons there likely went undetected.

But commissioners on the losing side of the 4-3 vote questioned the rush to do suburban screening immediately and said it would be smarter to analyze all possible solutions before spending up to $625,000 on temporary fixes that might not be necessary.

"It's an open checkbook resolution with security as the goal," Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said. He argued that less costly measures should be considered first, such as rescheduling the most sensitive cases for downtown courtrooms. Once weapons screening is in place, he said, it will be practically impossible to roll it back.

Hennepin County's suburban courts hear no felony cases among the more than 50,000 cases assigned there every year. Typical cases include low-level assaults, domestics, DWIs and traffic and parking violations.

The suburban courtrooms are guarded by county sheriff's deputies and security guards. Court officials told the board that they believed suburban security should be bolstered but also that they felt safe there.

Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat, who voted against the resolution, said that there is risk in much of what the county does. There's no weapons screening at economic assistance counters or the Government Center's violations bureau, he said. "You can minimize the risk, but you cannot eliminate it," he said.

Hennepin County screens court visitors for weapons in 90 of the county's 96 courtrooms in four of eight locations, including the Government Center downtown.

The annual cost for weapons screening is $1.6 million. Visitors are not checked at the suburban locations or the conciliation court at Minneapolis City Hall.

City councils in Edina and Bloomington recently voted to oppose closing the Southdale court, saying it would hamper residents' access to the justice system and would cost the cities more by having to handle cases in downtown Minneapolis.

The Southdale court on Tuesday listed 62 defendants on its daily calendar, but only a few people could be found in the lobby area just before lunch. Some visitors said it would be inconvenient for them to have to go downtown if the Edina court closed.

"Trying to do anything downtown would be a hassle," said Dave Langholz of Edina. Closing the Southdale court, he said, "doesn't seem to make much sense ... when the fix is worse than the problem."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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